I came to take an interest in Hugh Wood after I heard the first work which helped to make his name. This was the gripping and dramatic Scenes from Comus
Op. 6 written between 1962 and 1965 (NMC D070
). At 82 he is now one of the UK’s most senior and respected composers, most of the country’s leading performers have tackled his music at some point. Sadly, he is not much heard otherwise. This CD, which has only just come my way for review, may help to redress the balance.
I will discuss each work not in the recorded order but chronologically beginning with the Op. 1 Variations for Viola and Piano
. This was written in the late 1950s when serial technique had, with the younger generation, mostly taken a firm hold. This was also a period when the technique was developed and adapted by several composers for their own personal expressive ends. Benjamin Frankel was one such; another was Peter Racine Fricker. Wood’s Op. 6 is of this persuasion. The theme used in Wood’s Op. 1 is subjected to tensions and stretches which were not part of Schoenberg’s original conception. Even so, the row is surprisingly clear throughout the six variations. The first two culminate in a third marked Furioso
, then comes the slow movement as it were. This moves gently into a Capriccioso
and then a Finale
. This ends the work thoughtfully and beautifully with the same major seventh with which the row had been initiated.
By 1984 serialism had started to become a little suspect and so Wood matures his language by starting to include tonal elements within the rows. In fact, this was just as Berg had attempted to do. However when you come to hear the Piano Trio Op. 24
you might not altogether realise it, especially as, at first, the music is angry, dissonant and energetic. The booklet quotes three relevant passages of melodic material to make its point but aurally this development is not as significant as the fact that, by this time, Wood was fully able to expand and work his material into the shape he wishes. The second movement is just such, starting and ending hypnotically as if breathing “air from another planet”. It develops shapes and contours heard vaguely in the first movement as well as having its own direction. The finale, a Vivace Scherzando
, is quite short in comparison, and I’m not sure if it really has time to make its point. Still, it’s a fine work and one worth the study.
The piece that I found most fascinating here was the Paraphrase on ‘Bird of Paradise’
Op. 26 for clarinet and piano. The genesis to this moving and emotionally charged work is complex. Briefly, the composer quotes from his own setting of Robert Graves’ (that most love-lorn of poets) ‘Bird of Paradise’ about the Paradise birds’ courtship rituals. He also quotes fragments from settings by Wolf and Schubert. There is an allusion to some of Wood’s Op. 19 settings of Pablo Neruda and various bird-like trillings. This is just beautiful music; you can, if you like, forget reading the extensive booklet essay and just enjoy the sounds and the stunning performance.
In Poem for violin and piano
Wood enhances and broadens his harmonic palette further by incorporating ‘white-note’ melodies and harmonies. You hear this especially in the opening section. The work then moves into a more chromatic sound-world informed by serial technique. This is a lyrical and very lovely piece though not free from conflict between the serial and the melodic. The result, towards the end, is a passage of watery impressionism.
The Clarinet Trio
’s first movement is more Webernesque than anything else I had heard. It’s something about the lapidary movement and the use of dynamics. The witty second movement, as Malcolm MacDonald points out in his notes, alludes to Schoenberg and the Serenade
Op. 24 and Pierrot Lunaire
as well as to Debussy’s Cello Sonata. This can be heard in its Risoluto, fantastico
atmosphere. The finale, marked Adagio
, which is dedicated to a friend of the composer’s who died whilst he was writing the work, is dark and unforgiving. Schoenberg’s Nacht
also from Pierrot Lunaire
, is practically quoted.
One imagines that the composer’s wishes were carried out perfectly with these recordings. The performers are all superb and committed to the composer’s emotional and virtuosic demands. I did wonder if the first movement of the Piano Trio might have been played even more excitedly but that was all.
Malcolm MacDonald’s notes are technically quite detailed and useful if you like to follow music descriptions whilst listening. There is also a brief essay by the composer covering each of the pieces.
Hugh Wood has not been prolific and it’s interesting that by the time of the last work recorded here – 2005 - he had only reached just Op. 48. For this he returned to the Piano Trio form with the Overture for Piano Trio
. Its chamber music opening salvo is spiky and energetic. Also his language has not essentially changed since Opus 1. This is a twelve-tone work but one which is easily assimilated and opens the CD in a captivating manner.
This generously filled disc offers a creditable ‘carte de visite’ one might say for anyone making the case for English music of a more European stance. Each of these pieces is well worth getting to know. Each is superbly crafted and each is performed to the highest possible standard with sympathy and virtuosity. Well worth searching out.